The meaning behind ‘Maile,’ the name of Tammy Duckworth’s new daughter

ICYMI: Senator Tammy Duckworth gave birth to her second child, a girl named Maile Pearl, April 9.  The junior senator from Illinois is the first member of the Senate to give birth while in office.  This past Wednesday, the Senate changed its rules to allow infants on the Senate floor during a vote, enabling Duckworth to stick close to her child while sticking close to the proceedings.

There’s some confusion out there about Maile’s name, and the explanations floating around are only partially correct, so here’s the straight dope.  Duckworth and Maile are going to pronounce it “MY-lee,” which sounds exactly like Miley Cyrus’s name, as explained in a pretty good Bustle article last week. However, a few gaps are worth filling.

It’s a fairly common name in Hawaiʻi, where Duckworth earned her high school diploma and her bachelor’s degree.  Every year (except one, for some reason) between 1967 and 2012, it was a top-100 most common feminine baby name in the state, usually ranking in the 60s and 70s.  There is pretty much nobody in Hawaiʻi who doesn’t know a few Mailes.

The name is the Hawaiian word for alyxia oliviformis, a twining, flowering plant in the dogbane family.  It’s native to Hawaiʻi and used to make leis.*  A lei is not necessarily the flower garland you see in Elvis movies; leis come in multiple variations. Here’s a photo of Daniel Dae Kim wearing a maile lei at the blessing for the sixth season of Hawaii Five-0, and here’s some video of Hawaiʻi Senator Mazie Hirono honoring the late Senator Dan Akaka, with a maile lei draped across her lectern.

And speaking of Akaka, Duckworth says the name was suggested by him.

Note that Maile is different from Malia, the Hawaiian name Barack and Michelle Obama gave their firstborn child.  Malia is the far more common name (in 2016, the 46th-most common feminine name in Hawaiʻi).

While “MY-lee” is the common pronunciation, the Hawaiian pronunciation is closer to “MY-le,” where the /e/ sound is like the E in “keg.”  You don’t usually hear someone pronounce it this way, but when someone does, nobody corrects it because we all know that’s how we should be saying it.  Maile Duckworth can pronounce her name any way she wishes, of course, but hopefully her mommy will make sure she understands its linguistically correct pronunciation as well.  I’m certain Dan Akaka would be proud.


* The use of the plural form “leis” has fallen out of favor in Hawaiʻi, as there is no plural form of the word in Hawaiian.  However, I insist (against massively popular opinion) that I’m not speaking in Hawaiian when I say it; I’m speaking in English, using a borrowed word, and will therefore use English language conventions.  Boy, do people get mad at me for this.

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About Mitchell K. Dwyer

@scrivener likes movies.
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